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i, juan de pareja

14 august 2014

Diego Velázquez's portrait of Juan de Pareja is one of the most recognizable works in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. But till I read Elizabeth Borton de Treviño's I, Juan de Pareja recently, I didn't even know the name of its subject, let alone his place in art history.

I didn't know anything about the book or its author, and next to nothing about Velázquez … well, if I started a list of topics I was ignorant on, you would never finish scrolling. I do think of Velázquez as an artist apparently ahead of his time, like Vermeer or, later, Turner: someone who seems almost to have committed plagiarism by anticipation in stealing from centuries-later portraitists like Manet and John Singer Sargent, or even from surrealists and postmodernists. As a result, Velázquez not only seems late- rather than early-modern, he seems all the more interesting to us for prefiguring, and thus endorsing in advance, later cultural movements in our direction. A novel with Velázquez at its center has a subject we can really sign on with.

All the more so when the Velázquez depicted, as in de Treviño's novel, is a humanist, racially egalitarian, socially liberal, artist for but peer of an absolute monarch. (And that monarch, Felipe IV, by association becomes a mild, open-minded sovereign in de Treviño's rendering. In fact, nearly every upper-class character that Juan de Pareja encounters seems fairly to ooze the milk of human kindness. Not that I was expecting the Spanish Inquisition, but I had no idea that 17th-century Iberian aristocrats were such lovely folks.)

De Treviño's novel is also interesting because Juan de Pareja himself, though the span of life he narrates starts in his childhood, grows to manhood in the course of the book. Prestige children's books rarely do this, fifty years later, but I don't think that I, Juan de Pareja is of less interest to a child reader because its protagonist grows up. If anything, more. We see our hero grow from an intimidated slave boy to become a master painter in his own right, someone who learns to follow his dreams to artistic and personal liberation. It's a story of empowerment, of meeting and mastering the challenges of life, and kids seem to go for those.

So it makes one rather uneasy that Juan de Pareja is a slave for most of the story, and that his manumission at age 40 or so stands as a sort of symbolic coming-of-age. But slaveholders did, historically, juvenilize slaves – and de Treviño's theme allows her to represent, make dramatic use of, and also critique, that dynamic. I, Juan de Pareja won the Newbery Medal for 1966, so it was published in the year of the Voting Rights Act. Its civil-rights context is made explicit by the author in an "afterword" to the reader.

It will appeal, I hope, to young people of both white and Negro races because the story of Juan de Pareja and Velázquez foreshadows, in the lifetime of the two men, what we hope to achieve a millionfold today. (180)
In other words, it's a standard historical novel with strong contemporary relevance, and though it has largely adult themes, it's geared toward younger readers. They don't quite write them like this anymore, and it's too bad, because the task of simply writing a good historical novel is unconstrained by some of the generic strictures that have narrowed some of the life out of 21st-century children's fiction.

I, Juan de Pareja is unillustrated, and it doesn't explain too much of what the art it discusses looks like. It's unportentous, learnedly allusive without being patronizing: though it discusses some great masterpieces, it doesn't go into raptures about them or talk around its engaging narrator or down to the reader. I wish now I'd read it when it was fresh – I might have grown up less ignorant of Western art. But in 1966 I was busy reading Disney comic books and the Hardy Boys.

Elizabeth Borton de Treviño led a long and interesting literary career, writing on Hispanic and multicultural themes, for children and adults. (An Anglo Californian, she married a Mexican and lived most of her life in Mexico; she seems to have been comfortably upper-middle-class both by birth and marriage.) Though most of her projects were sui generis, she did labor for a while on the once immensely popular Pollyanna franchise, whose appeal can no longer be explained. She appears to have been a writer who paid her dues and then did what she most loved, and did it extremely well.

De Treviño, Elizabeth Borton. I, Juan de Pareja. 1965. New York: Farrar, 1984.